Adopted as God’s Children
In addition to the significance of suzerain-vassal treaties for understanding Exodus and all that comes after, understanding how Israel became God’s children is crucial to understanding Exodus—and how Christians later are adopted as sons and daughters of God. The term for this creation of a relationship where one doesn’t previously exist is called fictive kinship.
What Is Fictive Kinship?
My wife, who is a Yankee, makes fun of me for saying, “He’s kin to me.” I didn’t realize until the first time she mocked me that “kin to me” was a Southernism. Apparently it is. (For everyone who didn’t grow up saying their cousins were kin to them, “kin” means “related by blood.”) So, fictive kinship is the creation of family relationships where they do not exist by blood, thus “fictive” or “made up.” The clearest example of this is of course marriage, where two families that are not related (unless you’re from Arkansas, maybe!) become related through marriage.
To use another example, I’m an adoptive dad. My wife and I started this journey anticipating being a stopover for kids who needed a place to stay while their folks got their struggles worked out. Well, our first foster placement came to us when he was just six months old, and he’s been with us ever since. For about 3 ½ years Elijah was a ward of the state, but now he’s been fully and completely a Meek for over a year.
He still doesn’t look like me (thank God for that!), but I’m his and he’s mine. He even got a new birth certificate that lists my wife and me as his parents. What’s more, in the state of Louisiana (where we adopted our son), once a kid is adopted, the new parents can never rescind parental rights. That means my wife I and could (theoretically) relinquish parental rights to our biological children, but not so with Elijah. His status as a son is legally more secure than that of our biological children. That’s wild, right?
So, one humid day in Louisiana (every day is humid in Louisiana), a judge signed a paper and suddenly Peyton became Elijah William Carver Meek. One minute he wasn’t my son, and then suddenly he was my son. We were not related to each other, and now we’re irrevocably father and son. Even though we share no DNA, we’re family. That’s fictive kinship.
Fictive Kinship in the Old Testament
In a culture like that of the Old Testament where family relationships were the most important aspect of life, the creation of kinship bonds was crucial for relationships between people who were not related to each other by blood. This creation of family ties happened through cutting a covenant with another person or group of people. Two basic types of covenants existed in the Old Testament world: the parity treaty (between equal parties) and the suzerain-vassal treaty (between a greater and a lesser party).¹ The parity treaty was between equals, and the two parties agreed to act as “brothers” toward each other.
If you have a sibling, you probably understand what this means—for example, my older sister beat me up quite a lot when we were kids, but she also fiercely protected me. This type of treaty is similar to modern-day treaties between nations such as the United States and Canada (without the beating-up that happens between siblings). They agree to come to the other’s aid, not attack each other, and include provisions for trade and the like. Think also of Solomon taking all those wives from foreign nations—the purpose was to create family ties with the leaders of other nations for the purpose of national security (or trade, wealth, etc.).
One minute he wasn’t my son, and then suddenly he was my son.
In suzerain-vassal treaties, the created familial relationship was akin to parent-child relationships. The greater party (i.e., the suzerain) provided benefits such as military protection and land grants to the lesser party (i.e., the vassal).² In response, the vassal owed the suzerain financial tribute and “consummate loyalty.”³ Consequently, vassals could have only one suzerain, for to take another “lord” or “father” would be tantamount to treason.⁴ This is the sort of covenant that God established with Israel at Mount Sinai. It created a father-son relationship between Israel and God where before no such relationship existed. God was now responsible for Israel as its father, and Israel was now responsible to God as his son.
Fictive Kinship and the Gospel
So who cares, right? Fictive kinship is crucial to our understanding of the gospel because, just like God created out of thin air a relationship with his people in the Old Testament, he’s done the same with us in Christ. The New Testament uses the language of adoption to talk about who Christians are in Christ and how they should relate to one another. Paul states in Ephesians that we are “adopted into God’s family” (Eph 1:5, CSB), and over in Romans he says that we are God’s very children, “heirs of God and coheirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17, CSB). Jesus, of course, is not God’s son by adoption; he is the eternal Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. We, though, are heirs by adoption. Just like Elijah was adopted into my family, Christians have been adopted into God’s family, with the Father as our own Father and as coheirs with Christ.
Just like God created out of thin air a relationship with his people in the Old Testament, he’s done the same with us in Christ.
And here’s the kicker: just like my adopted son has all the rights and responsibilities that my biological sons do, so we have all the rights and responsibilities of a child of God. That’s huge, right? Me! You! Children of the living God. It’s too much to consider, if I’m being honest. And once I’m a child of God, I’m always a child of God—just like I can’t relinquish my parental rights to Elijah, God can’t relinquish his to me or you. I’m in, you’re in, all of us in Christ are in, now and forever. God is our Father, and thus he is responsible to take care of us (just like he does the lilies of the field and birds of the air). And it means we have a responsibility to love, cherish, and obey God. Further, it means that God’s family is our family. All those Old Testament stories? Those are your stories now. The story of the Bible is your story. It’s not about foreigners in a foreign land; it’s about God’s redemption of you and me and all of our siblings.